DC restaurant owners: How can we social distance the bar?

Spider Kelly's can be crowded, at least it was before the coronavirus pandemic. (Courtesy Spider Kelly's)
Spider Kelly’s used to be crowded in the times before the coronavirus pandemic. (Courtesy Spider Kelly’s)
D.C.-area restaurants are scrambling to come up with social distancing plans for when restrictions allow them to reopen.

There will be fewer tables available, or spaced farther apart. There will be limits on the number of patrons at any given time. Servers will be wearing masks. Menus will be disposable, or downloadable to your phone.

But one of the biggest challenges will be how to social distance at the bar. After all, a bar is, by nature, the antithesis of social distancing.

“Particularly for bar goers who are younger, in their 20s, the type of behavior they exhibit in a bar is going to make it especially difficult to keep them 6 feet apart from one another. And when you add in the fact they’ve all been cooped up in their houses or apartments for two months, it is going to be especially difficult,” Nick Freshman, whose restaurants include the high-volume bar and restaurant Spider Kelly’s in Arlington, Virginia’s Clarendon neighborhood, told WTOP.

It also means a new role for bartenders and servers, with the added responsibility of monitoring and enforcing social distancing practices.

“I think it adds an incredible layer of stress and anxiety on top of an already stressful job, in an anxious environment. It is going to be a lot to ask of our teams, and we will just have to figure out how to best perform our jobs safely,” Freshman said.

In theory, not all bar patrons should have to be social distancing, but Dan Simons, whose nine area locations include Founding Farmers, and sister restaurants, said that may be on the honor system.

“I can’t conceptualize at all how we would police the bar area. How would we know who already lives together and thus can be close together? If five people are roommates, they are already a COVID-pod, so it would seem they should be allowed to gather without distancing from one another,” Simons told WTOP.

Geoff Tracy, whose restaurants include Chef Geoff’s in D.C. and Lia’s in Chevy Chase, Maryland, and whose bars are popular happy hour spots, has concerns about bar patrons returning.

“Personally, I don’t think bars will be viable from a health safety standpoint until the majority of Americans are vaccinated. I’m not sure restaurants will be viable from an economic standpoint until then either,” Tracy told WTOP.

The days of just popping into a bar for a quick drink on the way home may not return for some time either.

“I think my current plan for the bar areas in my restaurants will be that I’ll remove some of the bar stools and then I’ll take reservations for the bar. If I, or any other restaurant or bar, allows ‘walk-ins,’ I can’t imagine how we’d manage it to follow any sort of distancing guidelines,” Simons said.

Bar and restaurant owners say official guidance on protocols for reopening has been limited, leaving them on their own to formulate most parts of their plans.

“I think the guidance is coming. But it is frustrating and exhausting to operate restaurants right now, more so than usual. The mayor and the governors are trying to get a plan together,” Tracy said.

Bars and restaurants have a leg up when it comes to some of those new guidelines. They know good cleaning and food handling protocols, and are subject to regular health department inspections. It will be a matter of doubling down on those protocols already in place.

The question remains, when the doors reopen, will bar goers and diners return?

“The bottom line is you can’t eat, you can’t drink and it’s pretty hard to chat with a mask on. That’s a challenge we’re going to have to figure out,” Freshman said.

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Jeff Clabaugh

Jeff Clabaugh has spent 20 years covering the Washington region's economy and financial markets for WTOP as part of a partnership with the Washington Business Journal, and officially joined the WTOP newsroom staff in January 2016.

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